CALL it extreme real estate, Brooklyn style.
Two rival developers in the fast-gentrifying Dumbo neighborhood in Brooklyn have gone to battle across the lot line of their properties. On one side is David Walentas, the tenacious visionary who helped remake Dumbo as a residential hot spot. On the other is Shaya Boymelgreen, a relative newcomer with deep pockets who has become a major player in the neighborhood in only the last few years.
The two have clashed over projects before, but now their feud has blocked condo buyers in a converted industrial building at 57 Front Street, owned by Mr. Boymelgreen, from closing on their apartments. And even if they do close soon, some of them may find something else is blocked – their views – because Mr. Walentas has vowed to erect a steel barrier in front of the windows in his rival’s building.
Mr. Boymelgreen paid $4.8 million for 57 Front Street in October 2001, and in early 2003 he submitted plans to the city to convert the seven-story building to 33 condominium apartments. The units went on sale in late 2004 at prices ranging from a little more than $400,000 to just under $1 million.
But Mr. Walentas owns the property next door to 57 Front Street, a parking lot that wraps around the west side and part of the north side of Mr. Boymelgreen’s building, and it is along that crooked line that the dispute arose.
Six of the apartments in the back of Mr. Boymelgreen’s building were designed with all their windows on the lot line, looking down on Mr. Walentas’ parking lot. While six more units, in the building’s southwest corner, have living rooms with windows on Front Street, all their bedroom windows are on the lot line.
That would be fine if there was an agreement between the neighbors, known as an easement, that would protect the windows. But without an easement, Mr. Walentas or a future owner could build up to the lot line, blocking the windows and putting the apartments in violation of city rules requiring access to light and air.
Mr. Boymelgreen said last Thursday he thought that an easement was already in place when he bought the building and that he didn’t realize it was an issue until city officials reviewing the project asked to see the easement last summer. He said he sent his employees to look in city records, but all they could find was a 1997 paper filed with the Department of Buildings that cited a “handwritten easement dated June 11, 1900.” The document was nowhere to be found.
All this time, Mr. Walentas had been watching work progress on Mr. Boymelgreen’s building. He said he was aware of the easement issue but he did not bring it up with his neighbor until last September, when his son and business partner, Jed Walentas, contacted one of Mr. Boymelgreen’s employees. He offered to work out a deal for an easement, according to people on both sides of the dispute, provided Mr. Boymelgreen would allow Mr. Walentas to acquire a nearby property at 45 Front Street that he has long desired. Mr. Boymelgreen is currently in contract to buy that building, known locally as the Nova Clutch Building because of the business that occupies it.
Mr. Boymelgreen refused to link the two issues and the stage was set for the developers’ smackdown.
Then, as buyers in Mr. Boymelgreen’s building were hoping to close on their apartments last fall, Mr. Walentas had a lawyer, Jed S. Marcus, contact officials at the state attorney general’s office, which regulates condos, and alert them to the absence of an easement.
The attorney general began discussions with Mr. Boymelgreen, who responded on Nov. 23 with a proposal for several changes to his project. The units with only bedroom windows on the lot line would instead be designated as studios, he said, and the bedrooms would be renamed studies, which are not required to have windows under city law.
For the apartments in the back of the building with all their windows on the lot line, Mr. Boymelgreen proposed to cut a notch in the back wall, 5 feet deep and about 15 feet across. Each apartment would have a window in the notch, so that if Mr. Walentas or some future owner built something on the adjoining property, a sort of air shaft would be left that would meet the city’s light and air requirements. These apartments would also be designated as studios.
Mr. Boymelgreen’s submission noted, however, that by turning 12 one-bedroom apartments into studios, the building might fail to qualify for a city property tax break for future residents.
As a result of the changes, Mr. Boymelgreen agreed to offer all the buyers in the building the chance to tear up their contracts and get their deposits back. Brad Maione, a spokesman for Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said that Mr. Boymelgreen’s proposed changes are being evaluated.
But the submission to the attorney general included one more unusual detail. The developer had been notified, it said, that Mr. Walentas planned to install “a steel sculpture” in his parking lot “that will substantially block all of the lot line windows on the property line.”
In the meantime, none of the sales in the building have been permitted to close and the buyers who have been waiting for their apartments, some of them for more than a year, remain in limbo. Eight have already pulled out and gotten their deposits back, Mr. Boymelgreen said.
Jason and Carrie Craig signed a contract in January 2005, to pay $825,000 for a fifth-floor one-bedroom apartment in the back of the building, which Mr. Craig said had “a great view of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.” Buyers in the building had been promised closing dates as early as last summer, he said, but construction delays held up the closings at first and then gradually buyers like the Craigs began to suspect that there were other problems.
Mr. Craig said that after pushing for information, he finally learned of the issues with the lot line windows. Theirs was one of the units with all the windows on the property line and the couple decided in December to pull out of their contract and take back their deposit.
But Mr. Craig, a lawyer, said the damage has been done. The couple live in a one-bedroom rental in Battery Park City and would still like to buy in Dumbo, but Mr. Craig feels the market has “run away from us.”
“We basically are priced out of the market for what’s available now and we wouldn’t have been had we not been stuck in this predicament,” Mr. Craig said. One of the developments that has gotten beyond their reach is 70 Washington Street, a condo conversion a block away from Mr. Boymelgreen’s building. The developer there, of course, is Mr. Walentas.
“I felt that we were caught in a turf war between the two big owners of that area while they were trying to work out their differences,” Mr. Craig said.
Mr. Boymelgreen said the problems arose from an “honest mistake” and said it would be wrong to suggest he was intentionally trying to push his project through without the proper paperwork. “If I knew anything like this, if I knew I couldn’t close with the buyers, why would I keep it this way?” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense, the whole thing.”
He accused Mr. Walentas of unfairly trying to pressure him into relinquishing the Nova Clutch Building and said he would not link that deal to the condo dispute.
Mr. Walentas acknowledged his interest in acquiring the Nova Clutch Building. He filed a lawsuit two years ago against the owners, charging they had agreed to sell it to him before they signed a contract with Mr. Boymelgreen, but the legal action was unsuccessful. He owns several other properties on the block and if he were able to combine them into a single development parcel, he said he could build an apartment building of about 12 stories on Water Street.
Mr. Walentas said there never was an easement with 57 Front Street, and he now plans to proceed with what he is calling a “sculpture” on the property line. “It’s steel columns in front of the windows with plates strategically placed where the windows are, just as a little negotiation,” he said.
Asked if that wasn’t an extreme negotiating technique, he responded, “To sell people apartments that can’t be legally occupied is a little extreme.”
Plans for the sculpture were first submitted to the city last February and a building permit was issued in October.
“It frankly was designed to block those windows,” Mr. Walentas said. “So we torture him a little bit.”